History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part V (1981 - 1985)

So, as we all know the Dallas Cowboys have a long and storied history. The team ranks:

  • 2nd in Super Bowl wins
  • 2nd (tie) in Super Bowl appearances
  • 1st in playoff victories (despite many teams having played for decades longer)
  • 1st in playoff games played
  • 2nd in playoff appearances (again, despite many teams having played many more seasons)
  • 2nd in total wins since NFL-AFL merger
  • Most profitable sports franchise in North America

In short, the Dallas Cowboys have been a great NFL franchise and their history is worth celebrating. Today we'll look at the conclusion of a 20-year run of excellence. I will add subsequent chapters, hopefully every week or so and be finished by the time training camp kicks into gear. In the process, I hope to learn things I didn't know, remind myself of interesting things forgotten and relive things I'll never forget. Perhaps those who read these posts will learn a thing or two as well.

NOTE: much of the information I use in these posts comes from Pro Football Reference, which is an invaluable a shout out to those who run that site. Your work is much appreciated.

Catch up on earlier posts in this series:

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part I (1960 - 1965)

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part II (1966 - 1970)

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part III (1971 - 1975)

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part IV (1976 - 1980)

1981 – 1985

The first half of the 80’s was a mixed bag for fans of the Cowboys. On the one hand, the team won 2 of every 3 games they played. They made the playoff four times in five years. They played meaningful football every December. On the other hand, they failed to reach even a single Super Bowl, won only 3 playoff games, two NFC East division titles and missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 years.

Many teams would have considered such a performance "successful" but for Cowboys players, coaches and fans there’s no doubt this era is not regarded that way. It was a slow, steady decline from "Super Bowl caliber" to "competitive but not a real contender". It had been almost 20 years since the Cowboys had not been a viable contender to win the Super Bowl in back to back seasons. And yet, this era would look like nirvana compared to what lay ahead. In short, it was a transition to some, weird "post-America’s team" where the Cowboys were still treated like NFL royalty while not quite living up to past standards.

On-Field Results

The first 2 and…let’s say 4/5ths of this era were very consistent with the 70’s. The team won >75% of regular season games. They won three playoff games and made the NFC Championship twice. They ranked in the top-6 on offense in both points and yards. The defense was twice a top-10 scoring defense. The ’81 and ’82 teams were in fact very good and with a little better fortune could easily have claimed a Super Bowl title. From 1983 forward, however, the team was running on fumes. The 1983 defense ranked 20th in points allowed, by far the worst showing for a Cowboys team in any scoring metric since the expansion era. The following year the offense ranked 18th in points; both units failed to break the top 10 in 1985.

The Cowboys had been elite for so long that not being elite but merely "competitive" or "good" was a shock to many fans. The deterioration was perfectly encapsulated late in the 1983 season when a seemingly great 12-2 Cowboys team was thoroughly outplayed by three consecutive opponents in perhaps the most bitter ending to any Cowboys season in history (more on that later).

Here’s the year-by-year record; (note a player’s strike in 1982 resulted in a 9-game schedule):

The 7 games lost in 1984 was the most since 1964. The 9 wins in 1984 was only the second season with single-digit wins since 1964 (excluding the 1982 strike season). Yet, as noted earlier, the team won 67% of all games which translates to an 11-5 season over a 16-game schedule. Every NFL fan base would be ecstatic for their team to win 67% of all games over a 5-year period.

Points scored is where we see both the unfulfilled promise….and true deterioration. The 1981 – 1983 teams outscored opponents by at least 6 points each season. These were (for the most part) good teams that fate treated poorly. Then we see in 1984 and 1985 a team that’s merely competitive, with point totals that mirrored their opponents. The last time the Cowboys had been outscored by opponents over a full season was (again) 1964. It truly was the end of 20-year reign of excellency.

The team’s offensive rankings were elite early in the era. The 1984 team was plagued by an excess of turnovers, negating their high yardage ranking and resulting in their relatively lower point ranking. The 1985 team rebounded to rank 11th in points and 8th in yards.

The defense, on the other hand, struggled throughout this period. Top 6 scoring rankings in ’81 and ’82 were fueled by terrific turnover numbers. When the turnovers dried up in ’83 the defense was largely exposed. A brief rebound to top-10 status in ’84 only delayed the inevitable decline in mediocrity by the middle of the decade.

Here’s all the good stuff:

So, after 15 years of almost unending green hues mixed with the occasional yellow we now see deep oranges, a proliferation of yellows and only a smattering of green. This is a more normal chart; what one would expect of a "good" team but not a great team. This simply re-emphasizes how truly great the previous 20 seasons had been. Note the "simple rating system" near the bottom…. the number was developed by Pro Football Reference expresses what the team’s spread would be against an average NFL team. Between 1968 and 1983 the team’s average SRS was 7.7 and never lower than 3.3 (1979). The 0.2 number in 1985 indicates the once mighty franchise had been rendered "average".

Division Results

The team’s division performance largely mirrored their overall performance. They won exactly 2 of 3 games played (24 – 12) but also suffered several demoralizing late-season losses in both the regular and post-season. The Cowboys had never lost both regular season games to a division foe since the NFC East as we know it was established in 1970. In 1984, the team's 25th anniversary season, they were swept by both the Redskins and the Giants. Yet more additions to the lengthy "hasn’t happened since" list. The team’s unlikely 1985 division title was fueled largely by a 6-2 division record, including sweeps of both Washington and New York. There were, in fact, a number of memorable late-season division games that largely shaped the Cowboy’s fortunes in this era. We’ll look at them in more detail in a bit.

Playoff Results

The Cowboys were a good team during this period. They just weren’t a great team. And this reality is evident in the team’s playoff results.

Dallas did win three playoff games. However, those wins came in the wild card and division rounds against Tampa Bay and Green. These were not NFL power houses. In fact, the Green Bay loss to the Cowboys was the Packer’s only playoff game between 1973 and 1993 (wow!). Tampa had made the conference finals in 1979 but had exactly one playoff win in their history at that point. The Cowboys were simply unable to beat more accomplished playoff opponents during this era. The two NFL Championship game losses were bitter defeats, especially 1981’s "The Catch" game; well look at each of those in detail.

As you’ll recall, throughout the 70’s the Cowboys generally had one of two playoff outcomes:

  • A lopsided victory over an outmatched opponent
  • A dramatic, highly contested, close victory
  • A dramatic, highly contested, close loss

This was a different era. Yes, there were some big victories but, as mentioned, over relatively unaccomplished opponents. And yes, there was one dramatic, highly contested, close loss (against San Francisco). But the team’s other post-season losses were by an average of 14 points and in most cases the opponent was clearly the better team.

Key Players / Player Acquistions

Here we see a lot of revealing results:

  • Like the 70’s teams the ’81 & ’82 teams were fairly loaded. Nine different players won All Pro or Pro Bowl honors. The ’81 team featured 4 1st team All Pro players. 1981 was Tony Dorsett’s best season; 1982 was Danny White’s best season.
  • After 1982, however, the awards decline with only five players recognized in 1983, three in 1984 and 4 in 1985.
  • Note also that these players had won numerous awards previously…. but won no awards after 1985. In short, the team’s best players had been drafted in the 70’s and were on the tail end of their careers. Randy White, drafted in 1975, accounted for 10 of the team’s 37 awards during this time. Too Tall Jones, drafted in 1974, accounted for another four.
  • Everson Walls and Doug Cosbie were the only players added in the 80’s to win multiple post-season honors.

This all becomes clear when we look at the drafts from this period:

That’s five-separate drafts, 72 drafted players and exactly three noteworthy names. It’s a dusty, barren cupboard of JAGs (Donley, Fellows, Pozderak, Pelluer, Penn, Ker) and complete busts (Richards, Hill, Cannon, Brooks). If you ever wonder how the Cowboys of the mid-to-late 80’s ever came to be simply look at this list of pathetically bad draft picks. In total, these 72 draft picks combined for two pro bowls.

And the recipient of those awards, Herschel Walker, was not a product of insightful scouting but instead cleverness from GM Tex Schramm who used a 5th-round flyer for the then-USFL employee. (And who could blame him considering only two of his previous 57 draft picks had been worth anything more than a bag of footballs).

The once visionary, innovative Cowboys had become dysfunctional. To this day I don’t understand what happened. You have largely the same cast of characters (Tex Schramm, Gil Brandt, Tom Landry). But clearly something went wrong. Missing on virtually every pick, year after year after year, cannot be attributed to luck. Yes, some promising players suffered injuries. But that happens to all teams. This was a devastating series of drafts that altered the team’s fortunes for years to come.

Here’s the total AV for players drafted:

Adding to the team’s woes is the fact the team cut one of the few good players they managed to draft. Landry tried to make Mike Walter an outside linebacker where he struggled and was eventually cut. All he did was go onto win three Super Bowls, start 96 games and lead the San Francisco 49ers in tackles for three seasons as an inside linebacker. The Cowboys couldn’t recognize talent even when it was on their own practice field.

This sounds harsh but I’m stunned to realize how the same people who hit on one 1st round pick after another and constantly found value in mid- and late-round draft picks…..who uncovered hidden gems from small and historically black colleges…..would completely forget how to identify and draft quality football players. I just don’t get it. To put things in perspective…. the total AV for this entire five-year period of 555 is less than the AV from the team’s 1975 draft alone. And remember, you should toss out 47 of that 555 AV because the team deemed that guy not as good as the other guys. Mindboggling.

The one diamond is this rough was free agent Everson Walls. He walked onto the team and into a starting job in 1981 and immediately led the league in interceptions. He became a stalwart at cornerback, earning four Pro Bowl and one 1st team All Pro honors. And we do have to recognize Tex Schramm’s final brilliant maneuver was the drafting of Hershel Walker. He would enjoy two Pro Bowl seasons with the Cowboys, but more importantly, was the linchpin in perhaps the league’s most notorious trade ever, which also shaped Cowboy’s fortunes in the years ahead.

Key Games

Each of these games were significant in their own way and make up key chapters in the Cowboys history book. They're also candidates for my Top 50 Games in Dallas Cowboys History, to be determined after this exercise.

Game # 26

· Season: 1981

· Date: 1982.01.10

· Opponent: San Francisco 49ers

· At stake: advancement to Super Bowl XVI

· Result: Loss

· Score: 28 – 27

Sigh. This was a hard one to watch. I’ve long thought a different outcome in this game would have changed the trajectory of the Cowboy’s franchise for the mid-80’s. A Cowboys win would have put the team into the Super Bowl for the 6th time (in 12 years) and the first time in the Danny White era. They would have been at least a 7-point favorite over the Cincinnati Bengals as the Cowboys were simply a better team than the Bengals.

They were not, however, a better team than the 49ers. San Francisco was a surprise success in 1981. Despite having missed the playoffs for 9 consecutive years and losing 10 games the previous season, the 1981 squad was a legitimate, high quality team in 1981. Both teams finished with similar point and yardage totals and ranked first and second in turnover differential. Many viewed the NFC Championship game as the de facto Super Bowl as both teams were considered superior to both teams in the AFC Championship (San Diego and Cincinnati).

"The Catch" is often listed among the NFL’s greatest games. In many ways, it was with 8 lead changes, numerous big plays, late-game dramatics and featured the league’s premier franchise squaring off against an unheralded upstart. The game also, however, featured 9 turnovers and a dozen penalties. Both teams had opportunities to put the game away at various times and were done in by mistakes. It wasn’t the best played game.

The game was tense throughout. The 49ers struck first on a crisp, 67-yard drive featuring a key, improvised 3rd-down scramble by Montana. The Cowboys responded with a nice drive that stalled, resulting in a field goal. The 49ers then suffered the first of their six turnovers when Charlie Waters forced a fumble. Danny White immediately took advantage with a beautiful 26-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline to Tony Hill.

The Cowboys then missed an opportunity to increase their lead when a penalty and short punt gave the Cowboys field position at the 49ers 37. Dallas went 3-and-out and then White punted through the end-zone giving the 49ers the ball at the 20 (a net gain of only 16 yards).

The 49ers then put a strong drive together that ended on a fantastic interception by Everson Walls who had blanket coverage. Walls’ momentum took him into the end-zone on the play and the ball was placed at the 1-yard line, putting the Cowboy in a difficult situation. Three plays and a short punt gave SF the ball at the Dallas 45. Two plays took the ball to the 20. Montana then made another superb play, tossing 20 yards to Dwight Clark for a touchdown. Montana should have been sacked by D. D. Lewis but slipped away. Clark was wide open after completely turning Dennis Thurman around. (Note: D. D. Lewis was playing his final game, his 27th playoff game in 13 years as a Cowboy. He’s one of only a few players who played in all 5 Super Bowls during the 70’s. Pretty remarkable.)

Dallas then benefitted from a truly terrible call against the 49ers. White threw deep from mid-field into double coverage and the ball was intercepted by Ronnie Lott. Lott, however, was called for interference despite not touching the receiver, looking at the ball and being between the QB and the receiver (reminded me of the bogus call on Benny Barnes in SB XIII). The Cowboys took advantage with a Tony Dorsett touchdown run from the 5, making the score 17-14.

The 49ers did catch a break when they fumbled the ensuing kickoff but managed to recover the ball. They were unable to move and punted after a 3-and-out. Cowboys returner James Jones fumbled the kick away with SF recovering near mid-field. (Note: in all the "big games" I watched from this era Cowboys return men repeatedly fumbled punts and kickoffs).

Harvey Martin then came up with a big play, hitting the trifecta with a sack, forced fumble and recovery. The Cowboys took over just inside 49er’s territory but again could not take advantage of the good field position. First White was sacked despite having all day to find a receiver (he actually fumbled but was erroneously ruled to have been down). Then Dorsett dropped a screen pass, followed by another sack. The Cowboys punted with 33 seconds remaining. San Francisco moved the ball but ran out of time with the ball in field goal position.

The Cowboys were leading 17 – 14 as the 2nd half started. They were fortunate, however, as they had been outgained 201-to-108. Three turnovers forced by the defense plus a bad pass interference call had been the difference. These trends would continue. First (stop me if you’ve heard this before), James Jones fumbled the kick-off but Dallas recovered. The drive ended, however, when White committed intentional grounding for a 17-yard loss. A short punt gave SF the ball at midfield.

The 49ers moved smartly but running back Lenville Elliott dropped a pass that was then intercepted by Randy White at the Cowboys 20. Danny White then missed an open Ron Springs on 1st down, then threw behind him on 2nd down, resulting in a tipped interception. The 49ers needed a 4th down conversion but managed to punch the ball across for a 21-17 lead with 5:41 remaining in the 3rd quarter.

The Cowboys responded with an efficient drive including a legitimate interference call on Lott and a nice 3rd down conversion from White to Jones. However, on 3rd-and-3 from the 5-yard line an unpressured White threw weakly and behind Cosbie, forcing a FG. Yet another missed opportunity by the Dallas offense. The successful kick cut the deficit to a single point.

Momentum seemed to be in the Cowboy’s favor when the 49ers fumbled near mid-field. This time White was the catalyst, throwing a 24-yard touchdown to Cosbie, to take a 27 – 21 lead. Everson Walls then made his 2nd interception of the game on a play that looked much like his first. With just over 7 minutes remaining the Cowboys were 1 score from ending the game.

The offense managed to get two first downs and were past mid-field, nearing field goal range. White then threw a bit behind Doug Donnelly on 3rd down but Donnelly got both hands on the ball and should have made the first down catch. I had completely forgotten this play but watching the game again I remembered when it happened I thought "uh oh; we’re going to lose".

After punting the 49ers took over at their own 10-yard line with just under 5 minutes remaining. The Cowboys put an extra defensive back on the field and SF head coach Bill Walsh took advantage with several successful running plays, including a 14-yard reverse. Montana then completed a pinpoint sideline pass to Dwight Clark; several Cowboys seemed in position to make a play on the ball but it was just out of reach. The ball was now at the Cowboy’s 25 with 1:30 remaining. A completion to Freddie Solomon moved the ball to the 12. Montana then missed an open Solomon in the end-zone. A 6-yard run took the ball to the 6 and set up a 3rd-and-4 with 0:58 remaining.

We all know what happened next. I’ve seen the video so many times yet it still makes me bitter. Walsh, in one of the many documentary pieces about the game, is shown in the film room talking about how this play can be used when the Cowboys are "tired and confused; they won’t be able to keep up". I’m convinced Montana was throwing the ball away but who knows. Walls was between Montana and Clark when the ball was in the air. He knew he couldn’t get high enough to affect the throw and turns, ending up behind Clark by the time the ball arrives. I don’t know what the rules were in 1981 but Walls had an opportunity to push Clark out of bounds before he landed. That would be an incompletion today but I’m pretty sure under 1981 rules it would have still been a touchdown.

The game wasn’t over, however. There were still 51 seconds and the Cowboys had two timeouts left. White immediately hit Drew Pearson on a long crossing pattern, threading the ball between three defenders. Pearson was grabbed from behind by Eric Wright. Many Cowboys fans have said that were it not for the desperation grab Pearson would have scored but the video shows otherwise; Dwight Hicks was in good position to make the tackle.

I entered the numbers into Pro Football Reference’s win probability calculator and it said the Cowboys at this point had a 99.5% likelihood of winning. I find that ridiculous; no way teams in that position win 199 out of 200 times. I can, however, say that both myself and those I was watching with believed the Cowboys would win at this point. All they needed was another 15 or so yards. There was plenty of time left. Instead, White fumbled on the very next play when sacked from interior pressure. The video shows Jim Stuckey absolutely abused guard Doug Peterson on the play, shoving him backwards and running freely at White.

It was a shell shocking, soul-destroying loss. The second year in a row the Cowboys had lost in the NFC Championship game. Watching the game again, however, I don’t think the Cowboys deserved to win. The 49ers committed six turnovers and were assessed over 100 yards in penalties. When that happens, you should win. But the Cowboys gained only 250 yards and failed to take advantage of the many turnovers. There have been 87 games in the Super Bowl era where opponents have committed six turnovers and more than 100 yards in penalties and teams are 81-6 in such situations (one of the other six was the Cowboys Super Bowl V defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Colts). The Cowboys simply weren’t good enough that day.


Box Score

Wikipedia Summary

America's Game Excerpt

NFL Films - #4 in Top Ten Playoff Finishes

Full Game Video

Game # 27

· Season: 1982

· Date: 1983.01.22

· Opponent: Washington Redskins

· At stake: advancement to Super Bowl XVII

· Result: Loss

· Score: 31 – 17

Following the disappointing conclusions to the two previous seasons the 1982 Cowboys found themselves in the exact same position: playing on the road for the NFC Championship. This time against arch-rival Washington in the nation’s capital. The Redskins won the NFC East with an 8-1 strike-shortened season but the lone loss was a convincing 24 – 10 December whipping by the Cowboys at RFK Stadium.

I should say; my memories of this game did not match what I saw when I watched it again. My memory was the Cowboys were decisively beaten and not all that competitive. Instead, what I found was a much closer game that wasn’t decided until about 7 minutes remained. I also had forgotten why us Cowboys fans had once been excited about Gary Hogeboom. He was electric (initially) in this game when he replaced an injured Danny White.

The game started well enough, with the Cowboys driving deep into Redskin’s territory. However, a weak Danny White pass on 3rd-and-goal was easily defended. (White did this quite a bit, needlessly throwing off his back foot despite an absence of pressure and / or simply tossing soft balls when fastballs were needed. John Madden commented as much saying the pass "really needed to be zipped in there".)

The Redskins responded with an 85-yard touchdown drive culminating in a 19-yard Theismann pass to Charley Brown. The score came on the exact same route White failed to execute the previous drive and, in contrast to White, Theismann set his feet and delivered a fastball.

The Cowboys then went 3-and-out with White missing an open Drew Pearson. The Redskins then drove deep into Cowboys territory but couldn’t convert and Mark Mosely missed a chip shot field goal to leave the game tied at 7. Everson Walls made a brilliant interception during the drive but referees erroneously ruled he had trapped the ball.

The Cowboys again went 3-and-out. This was hard to do as the first down play gained 9-and-a-half yards but two consecutive runs netted -3 yards. White then shanked the punt and Washington took over at their own 42-yard line. They also went 3-and-out, however when Theismann missed an open receiver on 3rd down.

Then (stop me if you’ve heard this before) the Cowboys muffed the ensuing punt. Rod Hill simply missed the ball and the Redskins recovered in the end zone. By rule the ball was placed where Hill muffed the ball, the Cowboys 11. It took six plays but the Redskins eventually scored on a Riggins run to make the score 14-7.

Then (stop me if you’ve heard this before) the Cowboys muffed the ensuing kickoff. Rod Hill first dropping the kick, picking it up, starting to run, crossing the goal line, deciding not to run and kneeling in the end zone. It’s difficult to see in the video but the referees ruled the ball had never crossed the goal line. Hill’s feet definitely did and the Cowboys were lucky to be awarded a touchback and not a safety. Again, I can’t stress how frequently Cowboy’s returners muffed and fumbled kicks during this era. It happened again and again and again.

Given new life the Cowboys then played clown ball. First Drew Pearson dropped an easy pass. Then Tony Hill dropped what should have been an 80-yard touchdown pass. The play reminded exactly of Patrick Crayton’s drop against the Giants in 2007; a crossing pattern where White hit Hill in stride and he should have easily raced for a touchdown. Sigh. White then benefitted when Darrell Green dropped an easy interception.

The punt was again short, only 32 yards and the Redskins took over at their own 38. Theismann was sacked on 3rd down however, ending their drive. When Theismann was dropped 1:52 remained in the half and the Cowboys had all three time outs remaining. Instead of using one, however, they let the clock tick down to 1:22 before Washington punted. This kind of egregious clock mismanagement happened far more often than I remembered back then.

And it came back to haunt the team as a Dorsett screen and then a White to Butch Johnson completion moved the ball to the Redskins 32 with 32 seconds remaining. White was then sacked and knocked out of the game on the next play. He actually fumbled on the play but referees erroneously ruled him down.

Thus, Gary Hogeboom, with 8 NFL pass attempts, entered the game. He threw complete to the Redskins 24 but the Cowboys, with no timeouts left, couldn’t get another play off. There’s no doubt in my mind that had the Cowboys used their time outs correctly they at least get a field goal attempt.

The Redskins received to start the 2nd half but they fumbled the kick off and while they recovered they did so at their own 5-yard line. Another 3-and-out and punt allowed the Cowboys to start at their own 39-yard line. Hogeboom immediately drove them downfield with several crisp passes, including a 3rd-and-7 completion when he stood tall and took a hit to complete the pass. He threw 6-yards to Drew Pearson for the touchdown.

It felt like the tide had turned as the Cowboys defense was stifling the Redskins for the most part and the dormant offense had come alive under Hogeboom. The momentum was short-lived, however, as Mike Nelms returned the ensuing kickoff 76 yards to the Cowboy’s 20-yard line. The Redskins quickly turned the big play into 7 points. Theismann converted a crucial 3rd-and-18 when he rolled out, away from a blitz for a 22-yard completion. Virtually every positive play Theismann made in this game came on designed rollouts or scrambles.

Just like that the lead was back to 11 points, 21 – 10. Hogeboom, however, drove the team right down the field, going 84 yards in 14 plays. The touchdown came on a beautiful 3rd-and-13 completion to Butch Johnson. The Hogeboom-led offense had generated 14 points in two drives after scoring only 3 in the entire first half.

The Cowboys defense again forced the Redskins to punt and the Cowboys took over near midfield. A 1st-down screen attempt to Dorsett was thwarted when a Redskin blatantly held Dorsett but no call was made. There wasn’t a Redskins defender in the picture and the play certainly would have been a big-gainer. Then Timmy Newsome dropped what should have been another touchdown pass. Newsome was wide open running down the middle of the field and simply dropped a perfectly placed pass. Hogeboom did convert the resulting 3rd-and-10 play for a first down to extend the drive as the 4th quarter started.

Watching the video, I remembered how exciting Hogeboom’s play was. I had completely forgotten the fact that Danny White was warming up on the sidelines and now I remember thinking at the time "NO! Don’t put him back in!" because Hogeboom simply looked like a much better player in this game.

The drive continued but Hogeboom was a bit behind Newsome on a 3rd-and-13 attempt and the Cowboys settled for a 43-yard field goal attempt. Rafael Septien missed the kick, however, and the deficit remained 4 points. The Cowboys defense yet again forced a 3-and-out, stopping Riggins on 3rd-and-short. After a punt the Cowboys took over at their own 27.

Hogeboom had been magical up to this point. The magic ran out however. His next two passes would be intercepted and the game would effectively be over. First, he made a bad decision trying to force a pass to Tony Hill. The interception allowed the Redskins to take over at the Cowboy’s 40. Their drive stopped at the 14-yard line but Mosely converted the FG for a 24 – 17 lead. (Note: this is the Cowboys defense 6th stop of the Redskins in 8 drives; the only time the Redskins scored after their first drive was the result of short fields surrendered by the offense or the special teams).

The next play is arguably the biggest play in Redskins history. Hogeboom was attempting a screen pass but the ball was tipped, intercepted by Darryl Grant and returned for a touchdown. A highly competitive game had gone from a 4 point difference to 14 in less than 30 seconds of game time.

Admittedly, there were 7-and-a-half minutes remaining and it’s possible the Cowboys could have come back. But Hogeboom was a completely different player at this point. His once crisp passes were suddenly wild and far off their mark. The team’s final possession ended on four consecutive incompletions, none of which were remotely close to the intended receiver.

Like I said, my memory of this game was just wrong. The Cowboys not only weren’t outplayed, they lost only because they repeatedly shot themselves in the foot. The Cowboys defense was outstanding, yielding only 240 yards. The difference was the Redskins made zero mistakes (no turnovers, only 3 penalties) and the Cowboys made plenty: turnovers, dropped (long) touchdown passes, missed field goal, surrendering a long kick-off returne, failure to score touchdowns deep in opponent territory.

The Redskins, on the other hand, essentially scored 24 points on turnovers and special teams play:

· 2nd quarter touchdown after muffed punt

· 3rd quarter, momentum-killing touchdown after 75-yard kickoff return

· 4th quarter field goal after first Hogeboom interception

· 4th quarter touchdown on 2nd Hogeboom interception

The defense surrendered only 7 legitimate points. Riggins did gain 140 yards but it came on 36 carries and watching the game he didn’t have a huge impact. He was repeatedly stopped on short-yardage situations. Add the fact the Cowboys settled for a 1st quarter FG after a 1st-and-goal situation, missed another field goal and squandered another possible score with poor clock management……it was simply sloppy mistakes that fueled the team’s third consecutive NFC Championship game defeat.


Box Score

Full game video

America's Game excerpt

I have to note that this except shows Joe Theismann (proven douche nozzle) talking about how they ended the game by running right at Randy White and bloodying and beating him. This is a gross mis-characterization of what happened that day. As noted above, the Cowboys defense was better than the Redskins offense that day. Yeah, Riggins ran for 140 yards but on 36 carries. This despite the Redskins playing from ahead throughout the game. It was the Cowboys offense and special teams that lost this game; make no mistake about it.

Games # 27, 28 & 29 – The 1983 Meltdown

None of these are games that would be considered among the "greatest" in Cowboy’s history. But any history of the team must cover how the 1983 season ended. Dallas entered the season following a 3rd consecutive defeat in the NFC Championship game. The season started in the same place the 1982 season ended, at RFK Stadium against the defending Super Bowl champions. A disastrous 1st half left the Cowboys in a 23 – 3 hole but they dominated the second half, scoring 28 straight points as part of a fantastic 31 – 30 comeback victory.

That was the first of 8 consecutive wins as the Cowboys eventually won 12 of the team’s first 14 games. The team’s two losses came by a combined 3 points. This was Danny White’s best season ever, as he tossed 29 touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards (both club records at the time). The Cowboys offense, overall, was as effective as ever, ranking 2nd in points and 5th in yards on the season.

The defense was almost as strong. They surrendered yards but also generated huge numbers of sacks (57 on the season) and turnovers (more than 3.3 per game over the first 14 weeks). The net result was the Cowboys were:

· Outscoring opponents 31 to 21 (+10 per game)

· Outrushing opponents 144 to 53 (+91 per game)

· Generating 1.2 more turnovers per game

In short, when Dallas took the field in week 15 against the Redskins to determine the NFC East division champion they were still the DALLAS COWBOYS: perennial winner and Super Bowl contender.

The Redskins were a formidable opponent. After the opening night loss, they won 11 of their next 12 games. The two teams had been on a collisions course towards this Texas Stadium matchup for weeks. The anticipation, not only with the team’s respective fan bases but league-wide, was tremendous. Pat Summerall called it "the no-doubt biggest game of the regular season" during pre-game announcements.

Thus, it’s hard to fathom that 3 weeks later the Cowboys would walk off the same Texas Stadium turf having lost a home Wild Card game to the 9-7 Los Angeles Rams. The defeat was the team’s third consecutive, following losses to Washington and San Francisco. And these were not mere defeats. The Cowboys were completely and thoroughly beaten and humiliated. The combined score of 97 – 44 does not fully capture how outplayed the Cowboys were in every phase of the game.

The entire season seemed to turn on a single play. The Cowboys had been outplayed in the first half against the Redskins but managed to stay in the game, trailing 14-10 early in the third period. Facing 4th and 1 near midfield the offense lined up and appeared to hope to draw the Redskins offside. Then, after having sat in their stance for a full 20 seconds White suddenly initiated a real play. The sweep left failed miserably resulting in a 3-yard loss.

White had gone against Landry’s order to simply try to entice an off-side call and Landry couldn’t believe it, shouting "No, Danny no!" on the sidelines. Personally, watching the game both when it originally happened and again recently I was struck at how the team reacted to White; simply put they didn’t have faith in him. It seemed like a hollow, desperate attempt by a player trying to lead his team but not having any followers.

The Redskins immediately struck with a 44-yard touchdown to take a 21-10 lead on the way to a dominant 31 – 10 thrashing. The following week the team traveled to San Francisco where they were down 28 – 10 early in the 2nd half of an eventual 42 – 17 loss. Despite the two debacles the team still earned a home wild card game as a result of their overall 12 – 4 record.

The mood in Dallas leading up that game was dark. The team had performed terribly and seemed to have lost all confidence. Danny White had not played well, throwing six interceptions in the two losses. But no one had played well. The defense had allowed 73 points and stopped generating turnovers. The running game was non-existent. Fans, however, focused most of their vitriol on the quarterback. The team responded by all greeting White at midfield when he was announced during the game.

The gesture proved hollow. The Rams took the opening kickoff and marched for an easy touchdown. The Cowboys would briefly rally, taking a 10-7 lead into halftime. The team was then driving for a potential score when a White interception near the LA goal line was returned 70+ yards to set up a go-ahead touchdown midway through the 3rd quarter.

Dallas then completely melted. White was intercepted twice more in the second half. The Cowboys defense surrendered three touchdown passes. The rushing game was held to 63 total yards. Texas Stadium was mostly empty when White connected with Doug Cosbie for a meaningless touchdown with under a minute remaining to make the final score 24 – 17.

The reversal from a Super Bowl contending team to a team unable to compete with an average Rams team was stunning and completely unexpected. The following charts, showing per-game averages of the 1st 14 games of the season versus the final 3, demonstrate how the team completely reversed its performance in every phase of the game:


· Rushing yards per game declined by 90 yards

· Rushing yard allowed increased from 78 to 138 (+60)

· Rushing yards differential went from a positive 67 to a negative 85 – a 148 yard variance


· Yards allowed per attempt increased by 1.5 yards

· Touchdown passes thrown decreased by 30%

· Touchdown passes allowed increased from 1.3 to 3.0 (+128%)

· Interceptions thrown increased from 1.1 to 3.0

· Interceptions forced declined from 1.8 to 0.7

· Cowboys passer ratings declined from 90 to 58

· Passer rating allowed ballooned from 64 to 109

· Passer rating difference went from +26 to -51 (a 77 point variance)


The result was the team scored 17 fewer points per game while surrendering 11 more. That’s a 28-point swing. Yardage totals weren’t as dramatically affected. Turnovers, however, became a nightmare. The Cowboys committed more than 4 per game while generating only 2 total during the final 3 games.

The following table tells a pretty simple story:

The offense had been a balanced, effective unit through the season’s first 14 games. The running game, however, completely collapsed in the final three weeks. This led to the team asking Danny White to do more; his pass attempts per game increased from 30 to 45 and he simply wasn’t able to meet the challenge.

White had been interception prone all season (16 in the team’s first 14 games) but without a running game to keep defenses balanced his turnover habit was heightened. This repeatedly put the defense in difficult situations and they weren’t able to respond. The defense had been guilty of giving up yards all season (finishing 17th). Now, not able to play with a lead the turnovers dried up and they were giving up yards and touchdowns. Truth is the defense just wasn’t that good (finished 20th in points allowed on the season).

In short, a seemingly dominant Cowboys team had been thoroughly outclassed and humiliated. It was yet another sign of the end of the DALLAS COWBOYS, perennial Super Bowl contender.


Dallas - Washington 1st half video

Dallas - Washington 2nd half video

Dallas - Washington Box Score

Dallas - SF Box Score

Dallas - LA 1st half video

Dallas - LA 2nd half video

Dallas - LA box score


The Cowboy’s late season collapse the prior year led to a crisis in confidence and some soul-searching by the head coach. He decided going into training camp the quarterback position would be a competition between incumbent Danny White and youngster Gary Hogeboom. I can tell you fans and media were split on this, just as they had been 10+ years earlier when Staubach and Morton competed for the position. Personally, I rooted for Hogeboom. I had never been a big fan of Danny White and am always in favor of youth over age. (And I’m more than willing to admit I was wrong. White should not have been subjected to a competition considering what he had accomplished. But the fact Landry believed it was justified and the fact people were split on the decision shows how high the bar was for the Cowboys at that point. Winning 12 games and losing conference championships simply weren’t good enough…and thus Danny White had to play for his job in the 1984 pre-season).

Landy eventually decided upon Hogeboom and he had a terrific debut (343 passing yards). Hogeboom looked the part but his deficiencies were soon exposed. He couldn’t read defenses particularly well, would lock onto primary receivers and not go through his progressions. After throwing 3 TDs his first 3 games he threw only 1 over the next 3+ games and was replaced by White after getting knocked woozy against New Orleans in week 8. His final pass was a pick-six that made the score 27 – 6 in favor of New Orleans.

Amazingly the Cowboys won that game on the strength of a ferocious 2nd half defensive performance. But the decline we see in the tables and charts above was also obvious to the eye-test throughout the 1984 season. The defense actually improved a bit from the prior year (ranking in the top 10) but the offense declined dramatically, dropping from 29 points per game to 19. The offense finished out of the top 10 in both points and yards (18th and 11th, respectively). This was the first time since 1964 the unit had finished out of the Top 10 in either category. You read that correctly…. this was the first time in twenty seasons the Cowboy’s offense failed to finish in the top 10 in both points and yards.

The won-loss record reflected the struggles. The team was 4-3 after 7 games and 7-5 after an embarrassing loss to an 0 – 11 Buffalo team. However, like the previous year they entered a week 15 home contest against the Redskins with the NFC East at stake. The difference was both teams sported good 9-5 records as opposed to the league-best 12-2 records the previous year.

The outcome was depressingly familiar. The Cowboys raced to a 21 – 6 halftime lead. On the first play of the 2nd half, however, White threw a pick-six into the arms of Darrell Green. Then (stop me if you’ve heard this before) they fumbled the kickoff and Washington quickly converted the turnover into another touchdown. Three minutes into the 2nd half the 15-point deficit had been reduced to a single point.

In fact, the Cowboys would commit 4 second half turnovers while forcing zero. The Redskins scored a touchdown midway through the 4th quarter to take a 30 – 28 lead. The Cowboys offense, mediocre all season, had two opportunities but never managed to even reach midfield. For the second consecutive season the team’s arch rival had come into Texas Stadium and snatched the NFC East division title in week 15.

The team then played a win-and-advance week 16 contest against the 14 – 1 Dolphins in Miami. A 39-yard touchdown pass from Dan Marino to Mark Duper with 2:39 remaining gave the Dolphins a 21 – 14 lead. Amazingly the Cowboys didn’t fumble the kick-off, giving the offense a chance to respond. And respond they did, though aided by good fortune. They needed only two plays to score, the touchdown coming on a ridiculously lucky tipped pass that found its way to Tony Hill behind the defense for a 66-yard score. Despite being outplayed the Cowboys tied the score with 1:47 remaining. The defense, however, couldn’t hold, giving up a 63-yard touchdown to a wide-open Mark Clayton who raced untouched with no Cowboys defender remotely close to him at any point. The Cowboys had 3 time-outs and 59 seconds remaining, but fittingly White was intercepted to end the Cowboys 1984 season. For the first time since 1974, and only the second since 1965, the Dallas Cowboys were not playoff participants.


Dallas - Washington Game of the Week video

Dallas - Washington box score

Dallas - Miami final minutes video

Dallas - Miami box score


The 1985 season featured Tom Landry’s last great coaching performance. The team’s talent was waning, the roster aging and yet the team managed to win the NFC East for the first time since 1980. An opening week Monday night thrashing of the Redskins washed away some of the bitter taste remaining from recent late-season defeats to the arch-rival.

A last-second field goal against the Giants in New York capped a 12-point, 2nd half comeback to put the team at 4-1. A week 10 13-7 win at RFK Stadium over the Redskins gave Dallas their first sweep of Washington since 1981. That put the Cowboys at 7-3 and in great shape for another division title and post-season run. However, the next game illustrated the gap between Dallas and the league’s elite teams.

A 10-0 Chicago Bears team entered Texas Stadium on November 17th. The Cowboys were still considered a pillar of the league while the Bears were amid what many consider to be the most dominant season in league history. It was a much anticipated, ultra-hyped game.

It wasn’t a contest. The Cowboys offense looked wholly incapable against the Bears. The final rushing statistics don’t do justice to how the Bears completely shut the running game down. And every time Danny White tried to pass he was under immediate pressure from the Bears aggressive blitzing scheme.

The Cowboys managed to keep the game close through the first 15 minutes, surrendering only a turnover-fueled, short touchdown drive. The 2nd quarter, however, saw the Bears put up 17 additional points and the game was effectively over. The final numbers pretty well capture how dominant the Bears were:

· 216 rushing yards to 52

· 5 turnovers to 1

· 378 total yards to 171

· Danny White (48 passer rating) replaced by Gary Hogeboom (0.00 passer rating)

· Cowboys quarterbacks sacked 6 times for 48 yards

The 44-0 result was the worst defeat in Dallas Cowboys history. It also clearly illustrated that the Cowboys, despite their impressive record, weren’t in the same class as the Bears. They did rebound, however, winning two games to reach 9-4 as they travelled to Cincinnati for a week 14 tilt.

The Cowboys received the opening kick-off and managed to lose 20 yards in 3 plays for an opening drive safety (amazingly, the first safety scored against the Cowboys since 1970). From there it got worse. The score was 22-0 Bengals after one quarter and 36-3 4 minutes into the 3rd quarter and 50 – 10 early in the 4th quarter.

The final of 50 – 24 did not capture how thoroughly the Bengals beat the Cowboys. The Bengals six touchdowns averaged 30 yards in distance, with five coming from 18 or more yards. The Bengals put up 570 yards of offense, including 274 on the ground. They also caused 4 turnovers and 3 sacks. I remember John Madden at one point saying something like "good teams don’t get beat the way the Cowboys have been beaten by the Bears and Bengals".

These kinds of results had previously been unthinkable. For twenty years, the Cowboys had won nearly 80% of their games and when they had lost it had usually been in close fashion. Dallas fans were not accustomed to having a clearly inferior team; for many of us such a thing had never existed.

And yet the following week the Cowboys faced the Giants at Texas Stadium to determine the NFC East champion. It was the 3rd consecutive season the East winner would be crowned in a week 15 division contest in Dallas. My memory of this game is a back-and-forth affair decided on a Too Tall Jones deflection returned for a touchdown by Jim Jeffcoat.

Looking at the box score and watching the only video available on YouTube shows this play happened late in the 1st half. The Cowboys trailed 14 – 7 at the time and the Giants were already in field goal range late in the half, looking to take a double-digit lead. The play turned the game around, tying the score. The Cowboys managed another score right before the half to take a 21 – 14 lead. The teams traded touchdowns in the 2nd half for a 28 – 21 Cowboys victory and an NFC East division championship.

I have no memory of this but the box score has one of the more bewildering quarterback lines you’ll ever see. All three Cowboys quarterbacks, Gary Hogeboom, Danny White and Steve Pelluer, threw at least 5 passes and none threw more than 17 passes. I think what happened is White started, was injured and replaced by Hogeboom. Hogeboom was then injured and replaced by White. But then he was replaced by Pelluer. I have no idea but it’s a really weird box score.

The game, in many ways, was a last hurrah for the Dallas Cowboys as they had been known for 20 years. Though they won the division their second-class status was on clear display the next two games. A week 16 contest at San Francisco saw the Cowboys race to an early 13 – 0 lead, only to be outscored 31 – 3 the rest of the way for a 31 – 16 loss. Then in a division road game against the Rams the team was again uncompetitive, losing 20 – 0.

The game never really seemed in doubt. Though the score was only 3 – 0 at halftime it seemed inevitable Eric Dickerson would run over the Cowboys defense. He finished with an NFL post-season record 248 yards. The Cowboys committed 6 turnovers. The key sequence of the game came as the 2nd half started:

· A ridiculous Cowboys squib kickoff gave the Rams the ball at the 45-yard line.

· Eric Dickerson immediately ran 55-yards for a touchdown and a 10 – 0 lead.

· The following kick was (stop me if you’ve heard this before) fumbled by the Cowboys and recovered by the Rams.

· The Cowboys held but the Rams converted the field goal for an insurmountable 13 – 0 lead.

The Cowboys only scoring threat came late in the 3rd quarter. However, from the Rams 20 the offense went incompletion, 2-yard loss, sack. On 4th-and-13 from the 23 Landry decided to go for it and the pass went incomplete. It’s hard to blame him. The offense looked wholly incapable of moving consistently enough to score 10 additional points…but it’s an odd decision in retrospect. The Cowboys defense did hold on the following position but on the punt the Cowboys (stop me if you’ve heard this before) fumbled and the Rams recovered. Three plays later Dickerson raced 40 yards for a touchdown, a 20 – 0 lead and effectively ended the game.

Thus, Dallas was thoroughly outclassed in a playoff game where the opposing quarterback Dieter Brock threw for 50 yards and compiled a 21-passer rating. It was an ugly game and an ugly conclusion to another Cowboy’s season. Truthfully, the Cowboys had grossly exceeded their talent level in winning 10 games and an NFC Eastern championship.


Dallas - Chicago Full Video

Dallas - Chicago Box Score

Dallas - Cincinnati Game of the Week highlights

Dallas - Cincinnati Box Score

Dallas - NYG Jeffcoat return touchdown

Dallas - NYG Box Score

Dallas - LAR full game video

Dallas - LAR Box Score

The Dallas Cowboys of the early 80’s were a classic case of a once-dominant team getting progressively older without refueling with quality young talent. The names of players making plays in that 1985 playoff game (D. White, R. White, Cosbie, Dorsett) had been around seemingly forever. The players getting beaten, fumbling and looking overmatched were young players who never made a mark in the NFL (Todd Fowler, Gordon Banks, Ron Fellows, Victor Scott).

Little did Cowboys fans know that an non-competitive playoff loss would look highly attractive in just a few short years.

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